Tower Records - the lessons that must be learnt

“A whole bunch of smaller labels are going to disappear completely,” said René Goiffon, president of the classical label Harmonia Mundi. “The smaller labels are probably going to lose 80% of their sales.” With Tower gone from Los Angeles, he said, there would only be two serious music shops to cater for a city of more than 4 million. “It’s the end of an era for me and many others,” said Mr Goiffon. “It was the biggest name, the last name that was synonymous with music, commitment, catalogue and knowledgeable buyers. We are left with Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart and K-Mart, which are all stores where companies like Harmonia Mundi have no presence whatsoever.”

Today’s Guardian joins the lament for the passing of Tower Records. On An Overgrown Path is a vigorous champion of both independent record stores and independent record labels. But actions, as well as words, are needed from labels such as Harmonia Mundi to stop the doomsday scenario predicted by René Goiffon.

The first action the independent labels need to take is to change their suicidal pricing policies. Let’s take an example close to home - Harmonia Mundi’s release of Olivier Grief’s moving Sonata da Requiem which I praised here recently. If I buy this CD from my local serious record store it will cost me £14.99, if I buy it online from Caiman in Florida it will cost me £9.75 delivered. How long will serious record stores survive in the UK with that price difference? And it is not just pricing differentials between the UK and US that account for this crazy situation. Take another example of a recent release from independent label Signum Classics of music by Francis Pott, who has also featured in these pages. If I buy his excellent ‘Meditations and Remembrances ’ from my local serious record store it will cost me £14.99. Buy it online via Amazon Marketplace from a UK vendor and the lowest price is £9.00. I asked industry sources, including a serious record store, how this situation could come about. Their explanations were, the CD wouldn’t be in stock, or it would be second-hand, or it would be a review copy. Sorry folks, wrong, wrong and wrong. I bought my copy online, it arrived in days, and it was a mint, shrink-wrapped copy.

Secondly, the independent labels must concentrate on adding value instead of slipping down the slippery slope of price cutting and surrendering to the distribution route of paid-for file downloads. On an Overgrown Path has repeatedly said that recorded classical music is already too cheap, and we are not the only ones saying it. Jordi Savaal’s brilliantly successful Alia Vox label has shown that value can be added to the CD format. In France recently I happily paid 23€ for Montserrat Figueras’ superb new release Lux Feminae because of the beautifully produced 172 full colour booklet that is bound into the packaging. The complete single CD package weighs in at 220gm, more than four times the weight of a normal CD, a classic example of 'more bang for your bucks.' This style of superb presentation simply cannot be made available to purchasers of file downloads, and it is a compelling reason to continue to buy the CD format. The success of the Alia Vox label shows that adding value works. While contracted to EMI in 1983 Savaal recorded a superb disc of music from the Sephardic Jews of Spain. That recording was being knocked out by FNAC in an EMI/Virgin 8CD box for 17€ with minimal documentation and dreary packaging, while elsewhere in the shop Savall’s 2CD re-recording of the same repertoire (albeit in more relaxed interpretations) was happily selling in superb Alia Vox packaging (above) for twice as much as the 8 disc EMI/Virgin box.

René Goiffon is correct, the demise of Tower Records is the end of an era. But it need not be the end of independent record labels and record stores. Harmonia Mundi, and the other labels, must implement pricing policies that reward retailers who provide a genuine service and commitment, and they must add value to lock loyal customers in to the CD format instead of surrendering to file downloads. The alternative is Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart and K-Mart.

Now playing - Montserrat Figueras' Lux Feminae spanning the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. My enthusiam for the output of Alia Vox grows and grows; this is music of commitment and passion. Here is Figueras' note from the recording - Lux Femina is a homage to the light of Woman. Having sung of that light for so long through music and poetry, I naturally became aware that it has not always been free to shine. Lux Feminae is a celebratory disc because the best approach to life is to celebrate everything and take time to celebrate. It is a hymn to the place of woman through history, focusing on her aspects of light, mysticism, sensuality, motherhood, love, lament, rejoicing and wisdom. Women sing the story of humanity, celebrating the beauty and possibility of being sweet as honeycomb on the tongue; celebrating mystical love, the fruitful womb and the tender breast that nurtures God; celebrating the experience of giving birth, of motherhood and nursing a child; the gift and duty of transmitting life, teaching and being teachers of life; celebrating the experience of joy, even in the midst of grief and loss. All the protagonists of the poems and songs in Lux Feminae embody and bear witness to that light.

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